It’s no secret that we live in a society that makes being unhealthy frighteningly easy. A day doesn’t go by that we are not bombarded by sugary processed foods, easy access to prescription drugs and stressful schedules that prevent us from finding time to exercise or get enough sleep.
- One in three Americans suffers from either type-2 diabetes or pre-diabetes, and one-fourth of those (20-25 million Americans) are not even aware they have the condition
- But ten to 15% of people with insulin resistance (the underlying cause of type 2 diabetes) are not even overweight
- The average American consumes 160 pounds of sugar a year!
- According to a study by the American Heart Association, “There is sufficient evidence to link excessive sugar intake to the pandemic of obesity and cardiovascular disease.”
These statistics are staggering. I was left wondering why so many people do not defend their health. After all, our health is our freedom. Without it, we have nothing.
In search of answers, I decided to interview Jeff O’Connell, the author of Sugar Nation. I asked Jeff to draw on his experiences as a former pre-diabetic and teach us how he successfully overcame his impending metabolic doom.
When I met Jeff, the first thing I noticed was his thin, athletic and tall frame. Jeff, who stands 6’6” tall at 190 pounds, is the least likely person I would have pegged for having a metabolic nightmare brewing inside of him. Prior to meeting Jeff, I was guilty of equating skinny with healthy and fat with sick. So let’s debunk the myths and uncover the facts about lifestyle-related diseases:
Question: What causes type 2 diabetes? Is it a lifestyle disease, a genetic disease, or both?
Type 2 diabetes is a disease caused by an inability of the body to properly regulate blood glucose levels. This occurs when the hormone insulin can no longer usher enough glucose (aka blood sugar) into cells where it needs to go. The signaling becomes garbled, much like a disintegrating cell phone call. The sugar then builds in the bloodstream, leading to the symptoms that characterize type 2 diabetes.
It’s primarily a lifestyle-induced disease. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. The signaling garbles when you eat poorly, don’t exercise, gain weight, etc. However, people can have a greater or lesser likelihood of getting it based on their genes. A century ago, type 2 diabetes was a pretty unusual disease, something that might have stumped the doctors on House for a while. Today, one in three Americans has type 2 or pre-diabetes. Our DNA hasn’t changed all that much. Our lifestyle sure has.
Question: Please outline your pre-and post diagnosis lifestyles.
Before my diagnosis, I was a thin guy who could eat anything without gaining weight, and so I did. I ate fast food and dessert, routinely snacked between meals and even swilled Gatorade after workouts—sometimes with a candy bar! I lifted weights but shortchanged the cardio.
Post-diagnosis, I slashed my carbohydrate (carb) intake to 20 grams a day for two weeks before building back to up to 80 grams a day, my current preferred level. I kept lifting, but I switched to circuit training and more metabolic type workouts. I started doing cardio and I also added the following dietary supplements to my regime: cinnamon, alpha lipoic acid, vitamin D, and fish oil among them.
Question: Can pre & type 2 diabetes be prevented and cured by diet, exercise and supplementation? Is this how you cured yourself, or are you also taking prescribed medication(s)? Please summarize the diet, exercise and supplementation regime you used and continue to use to keep yourself diabetes-free.
It can be prevented in the overwhelming majority of cases. It can definitely be managed very well with lifestyle. “Cure” is a tricky word. I probably still have impaired glucose tolerance, but I don’t insult my pancreas with a bunch of glucose. If you keep the disease dormant and ineffectual for the rest of your life, did you cure it? That’s more semantics than anything. You stay healthy. That’s what matters.
The key diet parameters for me are to eat small meals every 2 ½ to 3 hours; to include protein and fat in all those meals; and to keep my total carbs at around 80 grams a day, give or take. If you eat whole foods, rather than packaged foods, that’s all very doable and enjoyable. I’m not deprived at all.
The key workout parameters are to do both cardio and resistance training; to do at least something nearly every day; and to emphasize shorter, intense workouts over longer, lazier ones.
The key supplements are fish oil, a good multi, vitamin D, alpha lipoic acid, cinnamon and biotin. I don’t want to give the impression, though, that supplements are coequal with the training and nutrition. It’s more like 45-45-10, with supplements doing 10% of the work. I’m estimating, but you get the idea.
Question: Why do you think the majority of diagnosed pre and type-2 diabetics elect to treat their diabetes with the “diabetes cocktail” (metformin, Lipitor and antihypertensives), rather than with lifestyle choices? Is this lack of awareness or is there a hidden agenda?
Several reasons. Diabetes is hard to detect, so sometimes people are already well progressed into the disease when they first learn of their diagnosis. Yet even when it’s diagnosed earlier, many doctors tend to pay only lip service to lifestyle, whereas they’re very quick to write a prescription. Or they’ll prescribe both: a drug and lifestyle recommendations. But if things go well, they won’t pull the drug. Why mess with “success?” And if it goes poorly, they’ll add more drugs. This ensures the place of drugs in nearly every scenario. And, maybe it’s human nature, but there are people who simply would rather take the easier path of drugs, although it’s only easy for a while. Later it gets nasty. Getting out of bed and walking with one of your legs amputated is not easy, I would imagine.
Question: Please list 10 lifestyle and dietary changes can we start implementing today to prevent obesity-related diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease?
1) If you’re not sleeping 7 ½ to 8 hours a night, start. Poor sleep really messes your glucose metabolism.
2) Treat exercise as a daily “dose.” The positive effects of exercise on insulin resistance and impaired glucose tolerance have a half-life, like drugs do.
3) Avoid consuming more than 40 grams of carbs at any meal (preferably less). That seems to be a real threshold for triggering fat accumulation.
4) If you’re carrying around extra pounds, lose ‘em. Being overweight raises the odds you’ll get diabetes, although being normal weight doesn’t guarantee that you won’t.
5) Favor high-intensity internal training over longer steady-state cardio sessions, although anything is better than nothing.
6) Stretch really well after your workouts, for injury prevention. The workouts are your ammo against diabetes. So getting injured is a major setback.
7) Sprinkle cinnamon on foods where it’s appropriate. It seems to help regulate glucose metabolism a bit.
8) Favor lower glycemic carbs over higher glycemic carbs, although the total amount of carbs matters more.
9) Choose carbs that also give you fiber and plant chemicals. In other words, get a lot of bang for your carb buck.
10) Don’t. Drink. Sugary. Soda. Needless to say, I hope, but I’m saying it. Again.
Question: What is your favourite “unhealthy” dish?
Well, I always loved pizza, so if someone could come deliver a truly low carb pizza to my door, they would receive their biggest tip of the day.
Sara’s Sugar Nation Low Carb Pizza Recipe
I wanted to surprise Jeff by creating a healthy version of his favourite “unhealthy” dish! So without further adieu, I present low carb pizza!
(This recipe was featured on CityTV’s “Look I Cook!”)
I was inspired to make this recipe after reading this quotation from Sugar Nation: “It’s easier to change a man’s religion than to change his diet.” – Margaret Mead
Sara’s goal: prove Margaret Mead WRONG and get 2 thumbs up from Jeff!
The Recipe: Sara’s Guilt-Free Pizza: (Low-Carb/Gluten-Free/Dairy-Free!)
There is no question that pizza is a popular dish all over the world. Many people; however, view it as the “forbidden food”, laden with so much saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium. So this raises the question, “how do we create a heart-healthy pizza that is gluten-free, dairy-free, low-carb and low sodium?
Sara has found a solution! The crust is made using extra lean ground white chicken breast and ground flaxseed meal! Although this pizza is dairy-free, it still tastes cheesy because of this secret ingredient: nutritional yeast!
Nutritional yeast, not to be confused with Brewer’s yeast, is an inactive yeast popular amongst vegans because of its cheesy flavour when added to foods. No only does it provide an excellent source of protein and B-vitamins, but it is also low in fat and sodium. It can be purchased as flakes or as a yellow powder in the bulk foods section of your health food store.
- Place a layer of aluminum foil in a round “oven friendly pizza pan”
- Combine together and flatten into a crust shape in the pan:
- 8 oz of extra lean ground white chicken breast
- 1 TBSP ground flaxseed meal
- season with pepper, salt-free seasoning and/or chili pepper flakes, etc.
- Add topping to the “crust”:
- 1 cup chopped spinach
- 1/2 cup broccoli florets
- 1/2 cup sliced cherry tomatoes
- Add your favourite vegetables
- 1 TBSP nutritional yeast
- Season with salt-free seasoning, chili pepper flakes, pepper, etc.
- Bake in oven at 350 degrees for 25 min. To make the crust crispy, place the pizza in the toaster oven for 10 min.
- Refrigerate left-overs. Serve cold or toast the next day! I actually prefer this dish more on day 2 (cold or toasted)!
(for 1 serving, which is 1/2 of the pizza)
calories: 225, fat: 12.7g, saturated fat: 10.4g, cholesterol: 85.5mg, sodium: 111.55mg, carbohydrates: 5.35g, fiber: 3.4g, NET CARBS: 1.95g, sugars: 1.75g, protein: 24.6g
Compared to half of a conventional personal pan cheese & pepperoni pizza: 400 calories, 19.5 g fat,, 36 g carbohydrate, 915 mg sodium!!!
Jeff, you defied the odds and represent a powerful and hopeful movement that is finally starting to gain momentum. Your story proves that a healthier existence is something for which we should all work to achieve. May we all learn from you the importance of taking responsibility for our health and the importance of never letting it be taken from us without a good fight!
1. O’Connell, Jeff. Sugar Nation: The Truth Behind America’s Deadliest Habit and the Simple Way to Beat It. Hyperion, 2010.
Follow Jeff & Sara:
About Jeff O’Connell:
As the Editor-in-Chief of Bodybuilding.com, Jeff O’Connell oversees daily content for the most heavily trafficked fitness site in the world. Previously, O’Connell served as the Editor-in-Chief of Muscle & Fitness magazine.
O’Connell is best known for his own health-and-fitness journalism. He spent three years as Executive Writer at Men’s Health magazine, where he handled numerous celebrity profiles and cover stories. His feature writing has earned honorable mention in both The Best American Sports Writing and The Best American Science & Nature Writing anthologies.
O’Connell has co-written several fitness books, including the New York Times Bestseller LL Cool J’s Platinum Workout and Formula 50, with 50 Cent. His first solo work, Sugar Nation was released in July 2011 to critical acclaim and excerpted at length in the magazines of Times of London, The Weekend Australian and USA Today.
O’Connell received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UCLA. He lives in Boise, Idaho.
About Dr. Sara Solomon:
Dr. Sara Solomon received her BSc in Physical Therapy and her DMD from McGill University in 2001 and 2005 respectively. She is a general dentist in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Sara is also a Team Bodybuilding.com athlete, spokesmodel and writer, author of Oxygen Magazine’s “Work Train Compete Blog” and Gaspari® Nutrition’s “Fat-Blasting Blog“, a television personality, a cover girl, a WBFF PRO Fitness Model and judge (2010-2012), a certified personal trainer and physiotherapist, a SPINNING® instructor, a certified jump rope specialist with the Jump Rope Institute (and the face of the Dr. Sara Solomon Cross Speed Jump Rope by Buddy Lee’s Jump Rope Technology), a university and continuing education lecturer and a published author.
Dr. Solomon teaches men and women how to achieve lean and healthy bodies using endurable, maintainable and time-saving approaches. As a former “Oxygen Magazine Weight Loss Success Story”, Sara understands firsthand what it is like to struggle with fat loss. She has been featured on Lifetime’s “The Balancing Act” and CityTV’s “Look I Cook”, where she featured some of her most popular healthy recipes, including her “low-carb pizza“. Sara is known for her ability to transform unhealthy “nuTRASHional” food into nutritional food, without compromising taste. No one takes the hell out of healthy like Sara does! Get the lean and healthy body you always wanted with Dr. Solomon’s quick workouts (high intensity training), intermittent fasting tips, delicious recipes eBook, and more!